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Who Were the Herschels?







About Herschel's Telescopes

William Herschel (1738-1822)

William Herschel, shown holding in his hand a note about the discovery of the planet Uranus but here called
"The Georgian
Planet, after England's king."

William Herschel left Germany and his position in the Hanoverian Guards' regimental band in 1757 after a disastrous encounter with the French army. He and his older brother arrived in London with no money. Music directed Herschel's interests to harmony, which led to mathematics, and finally to astronomy. As his hobby became more serious, Herschel cut back on the number of music pupils so he could devote more time to observing. He was also building his own telescopes.

On the night of 13 March 1781 Herschel first observed the planet Uranus. It was a sensational discovery the first new planet added to those known since ancient times. His new fame brought with it a royal pension, allowing Herschel henceforth to devote his time entirely to astronomy.

Herschel later quarreled with King George III over the additional funds he demanded for his 40-foot telescope. Perhaps for this reason, it was only when the King went mad and his son William took over as Regent that Herschel was given the rare distinction of a knighhood, in 1816.

William's only child, John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871), assisted his ailing father in his observations. He became an important astronomer in his own right, hailed as one of the greatest scientists of his day.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) William Herschel's sister Caroline moved to England in 1772 and sang in performances that her brother conducted. She was an invaluable assistant in his astronomy, helping him build his telescopes and polish the mirrors, and spending many nights recording his observations. She was herself an excellent astronomer. She joined him in calculations. and discovered eight comets with her own small telescope. After William's death she prepared a catalog of the star clusters and nebulae that they had observed. The Royal Astronomical Society honored her with a gold medal and she received a pension of 50. Margaret Herschel (William Herschel’s daughter-in-law) wrote:
"She learned enough of mathematics and of methods of calculation... to be able to commit to writing the results of his researches. She became his assistant in the workshop; she helped him to grind and polish his mirrors; she stood beside his telescope in the nights of mid-winter, to write down his observations, when the very ink was frozen in the bottle."

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